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Going to the dentist – A guide for parents and families

If you have ever taken your child to the dentist, you’ll know that it can be a stressful experience not just for your child but for you too. This guide looks at the reasons why it can be stressful and what you can do as a parent or family member to help make the experience better.

1. Why is going to the dentist so stressful for my child? 

Your child may not understand why they have to go 

Your child may not appreciate that they need regular check-ups to keep their teeth and gums healthy. And they may not see the value of lying down in a chair with a light shining on their face, while someone puts strange equipment into their mouth.  

It affects the senses, which may make your child feel anxious 

Mouths are extremely sensitive, and if they are over-sensitive, your child may find the sensation of a cold instrument entering their mouth very painful. The noise of the drills and cleaning instruments can also cause distress. Sometimes the taste of the mouthwash and dental paste can be a problem.  

Dentists invade their personal space 

Dentists have to be very close to examine teeth. Being this close may be distressing for your child. If they are hyper-sensitive, then things such as the smell of the dentist’s perfume or the color of their clothing may also be upsetting.

2. How can I help? 

Here are some strategies to help make a visit to the dentist a better experience for you and your child. You will need to adapt them to suit your child’s needs and level of understanding.  

Choose an autism-friendly practice or prepare your dentist 

Some dentists’ practices are working to be more autism-friendly. If yours isn’t, encourage them to change. There are lots of things dentists can do to make their service more autism-friendly. Check out our information, which you can share with your dentist. [link to guide for dentists] 

Prepare your child 

If your child has had a bad experience at the dentist’s you may, understandably, want to put off telling them about the next appointment – perhaps until the last minute. But, in most situations, it is better to let your child know as early as possible – even if it has an impact on their behavior at the time. You could use visual support, like a calendar, if your child’s concept of time is poor. 

If it’s your child’s first visit to the dentist, you could ask the practice staff if you can take your child to visit the building, meet the dentist and meet other staff before treatment. You could also ask the dentist to show your child what equipment will be used and how it works.  

Social stories

You could also use social stories with your child to describe what happens at the dentist and why we need to go to the dentist. They can be a useful way of providing information about an activity and the reason for doing it.  

Use story books 

There are lots of basic story books about visiting the dentist which may help you, you can look online or in bookstores.  

Break down the visit 

You could use visual supports, such as a sequence of pictures or photos that show the different steps involved in going to the dentist. This could help your child know what is coming next and when each step is finished. You could also include a reward picture at the end of the sequence, so they have something to look forward to. 

Book an appointment at a time that suits you 

Try to get the first appointment of the day – maybe even book a double time slot. The dentist is unlikely to be running late and a double slot should mean that no one feels rushed.  

Time indicators

To help your child understand that their visit to the dentist has a time limit, you could use a timer, like a sand timer, or a buzzer, or a mobile alarm.

Comforters/distracters

Taking your child’s usual comforters into the dentist’s surgery could help occupy or distract your child.  Listening to music on headphones, or having music in the background, may also help.

Sedation

If your child is likely to become extremely distressed during their visit you may want to consider sedatives. You will need to talk to your dentist and a medical professional to discuss your options.

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